NOW WHAT?: Pastor Robert Garcia isn’t sure what the next move is to save his church.
By Paul Brennan | Iowa Watchdog
DES MOINES, Iowa — Pastor Robert Garcia has half a church.
The rear half of Iglesia Emanuel Independiete in Muscatine is now owned by Oak Helm Partners, a real estate investment group from Davenport, and no one is quite sure why they want part of a church.
Garcia isn’t quite sure how he can accommodate his congregation and isn’t entirely sure how all this came to pass.
“No one is aware of any precedent for a matter quite like this,” County Assessor Dale McCrea told Iowa Watchdog.
Suffice to say it took an almost divine bureaucratic thunderbolt to split Iglesia Emanuel Independiete in two. It began with vandalized mailboxes and an unmown lawn.
“The grass hadn’t been recently mowed and we didn’t see any signs of activity at the building, so we sent them a letter inquiring about their status,” McCrea said.
The postal service returned the letter to the assessor marked undeliverable. Garcia had stopped using the church’s street address because he tired of replacing wrecked mailboxes.
McCrea instead turned to the secretary of state’s office, which listed Iglesia Emanuel Independiete as an inactive corporation since 1987. The church has been holding regular services since its founding in 1983.
Garcia, who speaks little English, told Iowa Watchdog he was unaware Iowa law requires churches to file reports with the state every two years to be considered active and entitled to tax-exempt status.
Having faith that the secretary of state’s information was correct, the assessor’s office in 2009 added the church to the county’s tax rolls. Yearly property tax bills were sent to the church’s street address.
A CHURCH LITERALLY DIVIDED: Mistaken assumptions, bureaucratic screw-ups and language problems have led to the rear half of a Muscatine church being sold for unpaid property taxes.
Year after year, bills and the delinquent tax notices bounced back to the assessor’s office.
“I didn’t know anything was wrong until June, when my brother asked me if there is a problem at the church,” Garcia said. “I told him everything is all right.”
Everything was not all right. Garcia’s brother had seen a newspaper listing for the annual tax sale. Among the properties listed was one of two lots upon which sits Iglesia Emanuel Independiete.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Garcia said. “But when there is a problem, you have to trust in God,” Garcia said.
God and an attorney.
With the help of his lawyer, Garcia learned the church owed $19,128 in back taxes on the lot and had only days to pay.
“They didn’t contact me until a few days before the sale,” McCrea said. The assessor didn’t have the authority to waive the back taxes since the state considered the church inactive.
At the sale, Oak Helm Partners bought the lot.
The sale was legal and nobody can do anything about it, County Attorney Alan Ostergren said.
While the church’s attorney is working with the new owners of the building’s rear half to come to an equitable arrangement, the church is still in possession of the building and Garcia is still holding services.
Iowa Watchdog contacted Oak Helm Partners to find out what its plans were for the rear half of the church, but no one was available for comment.
The church’s attorney is also working with the county to resolve the fate of the building’s front half , and that may ultimately require a vote of the county Board of Supervisors.
At the same time the secretary of state’s office is requiring the church to file all of its biennial reports going back to 1985.
Garcia remains convinced that his help will come from a place far removed from the county courthouse.
“I only know I am a servant of God, and God will give the answers in this matter,” he said.
Contact Paul Brennan at email@example.com